Special Report

States With the Best (and Worst) Schools

Detailed findings:

A strong foundation at home is one of the best predictors of a child’s future academic achievement and success. Research suggests that children facing fewer risk factors, such as living in poverty, and with advantages such as well-educated parents, are more likely to succeed academically. A child from a high-income family may enjoy greater access to books and a personal computer as well as access to extracurricular activities that require some monetary investment. These educational tools and learning experiences are generally less available to poorer children.

In the United States, 58.7% of children are raised in families with incomes at least double the poverty level — a minimum level of income considered necessary for financial stability. A larger share of children live in such households in all but one of the states in the top half of the rankings. The share is greater than the national share in only five of the 25 lower ranked states.

A state’s spending on its public school system is only one factor related to the success of its students. Still, a school’s budget is important. “States with high overall grades in the report card tend to have relatively high spending” Lloyd said.

Across all states, public schools spend an average of $12,526 per pupil per year. In all but five of the 25 best ranking states, annual per pupil spending is higher than the national average.

Because school budgets are funded largely by property taxes as well as extensive private fundraising, a child from a high-income family is also more likely to attend school in a well-funded school district. Children attending such schools benefit from a range of additional advantages, including teachers with higher pay and greater qualifications. By contrast, families and school districts in low-income areas may not have the resources to help children get off to a good start.

Research indicates that pre-K programs benefit all children regardless of family income level, and preschool can be especially beneficial to children in poverty. Despite the higher stakes for low-income families, the likelihood of a child attending preschool is lower in states in which more families face financial instability.

Standardized test scores are by no means perfect measures of academic achievement, but they are among the only ways to compare student performance across states. Student test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) track closely with other school quality metrics. Nationwide, 39.4% of fourth grade students are proficient in mathematics, and 34.8% are proficient in reading. A larger share of students are proficient in math in all but five of the states in the top half of the rankings. Only one state in the top half of the rankings reports a lower share of fourth grade students who are proficient in reading.

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